Atomic racism decimated Kiribati and the Marshall Islands; now climate change is sinking them
This is an extract from the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland report “Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment”.
In 1954, the government of Winston Churchill decided that the UK needed to develop a hydrogen bomb (a more sophisticated and destructive type of nuclear weapon). The US and Russia had already developed an H-bomb and Churchill argued that the UK “could not expect to maintain our influence as a world power unless we possessed the most up-to-date nuclear weapons”.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand refused to allow a hydrogen bomb test to be conducted on their territories so the British government searched for an alternative site. Kiritimati Island and Malden Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in the central Pacific Ocean (now the Republic of Kiribati) were chosen. Nine nuclear weapons tests – including the first hydrogen bomb tests – were carried out there as part of “Operation Grapple” between 1957 and 1958.
Military personnel from the UK, New Zealand and Fiji (then a British colony) and Gilbertese labourers were brought in to work on the operation. Many of the service personnel were ordered to witness the tests in the open, on beaches or on the decks of ships, and were simply told to turn their backs and shut their eyes when the bombs were detonated. There is evidence that Fijian forces were given more dangerous tasks than their British counterparts, putting them at greater risk from radiation exposure. The local Gilbertese were relocated and evacuated to British naval vessels during some of the tests but many were exposed to fallout, along with naval personnel and soldiers.
After Grapple X, the UK’s first megaton hydrogen bomb test in November 1957, dead fish washed ashore and “birds were observed to have their feathers burnt off, to the extent that they could not fly”. The larger Grapple Y test in 1958 spread fallout over Kiritimati Island and destroyed large areas of vegetation.
Despite evidence that military personnel and local people suffered serious health problems as a result of the tests, including blindness, cancers, leukaemia and reproductive difficulties, the British government has consistently denied that they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and has resisted claims for compensation.
Like the Marshall Islands, the low-lying Republic of Kiribati is now bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. Salt water washed in on king tides has contaminated the islands’ scarce freshwater resources. Pits that are used to grow taro plants have been ruined and the healthy subsistence lifestyle of local people is under threat.
It is predicted that rising sea levels will further impact freshwater resources and reduce the amount of agricultural land, while storm damage and erosion will increase. Much of the land will ultimately be submerged. In anticipation of the need to relocate its entire population, the government of Kiribati bought 20km2 of land on Fiji in 2014.
The UK is set to spend £3.4 billion a year on Trident nuclear weapons system between 2019 and 2070. If Trident were scrapped, a portion of the savings could be provide to the Republic of Kiribati in the form of climate finance (see section 1.2.1). Scrapping Trident would also allow money and skills to be redirected towards measures aimed at drastically cutting the UK’s carbon emissions (see section 1.2.2) – action that Pacific island nations are urgently demanding.
The Marshall Islands
The most devasting incident of radioactive contamination took place 8,000 km from the US mainland during the Castle Bravo test in 1954. The US detonated the largest nuclear weapon in its history at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, causing fallout to spread over an area of more than 11,000km. Residents of nearby atolls, Rongelap and Utirik, were exposed to high levels of radiation, suffering burns, radiation sickness, skin lesions and hair loss as a result.
Castle Bravo was just one of 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the US in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. Forty years after the tests, the cervical cancer mortality rate for women of the Marshall Islands was found to be 60 times greater than the rate for women in the US mainland, while breast and lung cancer rates were five and three times greater respectively. High rates of infant mortality have also been found in the Marshall Islands and a legacy of birth defects and infertility has been documented. Many Marshallese were relocated by the US to make way for the testing.
Some were moved to Rongelap Atoll and relocated yet again after the fallout from Castle Bravo left the area uninhabitable.
Rongelap Atoll was resettled in 1957 after the US government declared that the area was safe. However, many of those who returned developed serious health conditions and the entire population was evacuated by Greenpeace in 1984. An attempt to resettle Bikini Atoll was similarly abandoned in 1978 after it became clear that the area was still unsafe for human habitation.
A 2019 peer-reviewed study found levels of the radioactive isotope caesium-137 in fruits taken from some parts of Bikini and Rongelap to be significantly higher than levels recorded at the sites of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Compounding the injustice of nuclear weapons testing, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is now on the frontline of the climate emergency. The government declared a national climate crisis in 2019, citing the nation’s extreme vulnerability to rising sea levels and the “implications for the security, human rights and wellbeing of the Marshallese people”.
At Runit Island, one of 40 islands in the Enewetak Atoll, rising sea levels are threatening to release radioactive materials into an already contaminated lagoon. In the late 1970s, the US army dumped 90,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste, including plutonium, into a nuclear blast crater and covered it with a concrete cap. Radioactive materials are leaking out of the crater and cracks have appeared on the concrete cap. Encroaching salt water caused by rising sea levels could collapse the structure altogether. The Marshallese government has asked the US for help to prevent an environmental catastrophe but the US maintains that the dome is the Marshall Islands’ responsibility. Hilda Heine, then President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said of the dome in 2019: “We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.”
The Runit Island dome offers a stark illustration of the ways in which the injustices of nuclear weapons testing and climate change overlap. Marshall Islanders were left with the toxic legacy of nuclear weapons testing conducted on their territory by another state. The country is now being forced to deal with the effects of a climate crisis that they did not create, including the erosion of the Runit dome.
The nations that contributed most to the crisis are failing to cut their emissions quickly enough to limit further global heating, leaving the Marshallese at the mercy of droughts, cyclones and rising seas. A recent study found that if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions are maintained, the Marshall Islands will be flooded with sea water annually from 2050. The resulting damage to infrastructure and contamination of freshwater supplies will render the islands uninhabitable.
If the US scrapped its nuclear weapons programme, it could give a portion of the billions of dollars that would be saved to the Republic of the Marshall Islands to help the country mitigate and adapt to climate disruption (see section 1.2.1 on international climate finance). The US could also use the freed-up funds to invest in its own Just Transition away from a fossil-fuel powered economy.
Headline photo of Kiribati by Arorae for Wikimedia Commons.